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Woodfring: Learning From the Past

 The first brick laid for any wood kiln signifies a particular conviction: a commitment to an ongoing labor-intensive process ultimately tied to a vision for personal work. Contemporary woodfirers learn about the process indirectly, by being attracted to the finished work, as in my own case, or by becoming part of a more integrated experience, as occurred with potters Jane Herold, who apprenticed with Cardew, or Vernon Owens, for whom firing a groundhog kiln was part of growing up.

 In the past, necessity was the basis for woodfiring, whereas today another necessity—that of personal choices related to aesthetic decision-making—usually prevails. I credit four primary sources for the current interest in woodfiring. They are: the medieval Japanese ceramics produced during the rise of the so-called "Six Great Kilns," (a term no longer considered accurate by art historians in light of recent excavations); the French work centered around La Borne; the woodfired salt-glazed wares, especially those of North Carolina; and the alkaline-glazed tradition from the Edgewater, South Carolina, area. My choices are based on information from peer professionals who practice woodfiring consistently and who responded to queries about historical influences.

 Books are an important source of inspiration. In 1970, Daniel Rhodes' Tamba Pottery became the first volume to address the genre of kiln-glazed ceramic work avoided in the writings of Leach and Cardew—the two primary sources for information about woodfiring in English, apart from specialized academic papers. Rhodes' writing reveals a sensitivity that had been developing since the late 1950s when his students Ruth Cowdy (McKinley) and Val Cushing, among others, had built wood kilns at Alfred University. Clearly, the process and its results intrigued Rhodes though, until his retirement from teaching at Alfred, his own work was rarely woodfired. Over the years, travel and scholarship led Rhodes to Asia, and his book about Tamba was, for many readers, the first appreciative writing to address an aesthetic which Western culture found either alien or confusing, if not both.

 Rhodes saw that Western preoccupation with control of ceramic processes, while a proper concern for industry, could inhibit the range of aesthetic appreciation, and offered an explanation:

Until recently in Western art, such processes, involving a considerable element of the accidental, were ignored or scorned as lacking depth, meaning, or design. Only in the mid-twentieth century have we come to realize that process and result can be as one, that the artist may identify with his work physically and kinetically as well as intellectually, and that a relaxed and immediate enactment (in various art forms) can open the door to possibilities lying somewhere between . . . creator and . .. media, possibilities that can be reached for only with means other than the mind. Certain Japanese pots powerfully and unforgettably demonstrate the potential of the direct and unconscious union of action and material. Later he states, "Clearly, our concept of art as being the work of individual genius and the working out of some unique and special individuality must be revised or broadened to accommodate the fact of these pieces.

 The publication in 1977 of Louise Cort's Shigaraki, Potters' Valley, enlarged the technical and aesthetic information to which ceramists had access. This extraordinary book documents a 700-year tradition of pottery-making in the village that has become synonymous with a particular style of woodfired work whose appreciation by tea masters in the mid-1600s changed forever the ways in which "common" ceramic objects would be perceived. Made to meet the everyday needs of local people, Shigaraki jars came to embody aesthetic qualities transcending their utilitarian purpose for being.

 In addition to being a work of consummate scholarship, Cort's book amplifies the perceptions and values of the tea masters, presenting Shigaraki wares to an even wider audience by providing a historical context and sense of aesthetic ecumenism for the ceramic work of another culture. Potters and sculptors found inspiration in her pages.

 By documenting the power of fire-born pots to engage the beholder, Cort provided an impetus for many of us who were exploring woodfiring in the 1970s. It is not that we were interested in making Japanese work so much as gaining confidence in those aesthetically provocative qualities the Japanese had long ago cultivated and come to trust; qualities our Anglo-European heritage overlooked, as evidenced by Leach's writings, in addition to those of more recent historians whose surveys of North American ceramic art virtually ignore the genre. Apart from woodfiring's practitioners, collectors with vision and the confidence to support recognizably significant work have helped integrate the medium into the contemporary milieu.

 The interrelationship of materials, firing process and human effort had particular significance in the context of Zen Buddhist aesthetics, and the work from Bizen, Shigaraki, Echizen, Tokoname, Seto and Tamba, like a powerful force-field, continues to influence the course of woodfired work around the world if for no other reason than being a reference-point, a basis for comparison with pieces produced elsewhere. Regardless of whether future explorations of the medium challenge or reinforce values first articulated by the tea masters, their perceptions will always remain viable in the sense that they were the first to say, simply, "This work deserves our consideration."

 The work produced in central France since the mid-16th century in the region around La Borne, near Henrichemont, about 20 miles from Bourges, is significant. La Borne ("the boundary") developed as a pottery village with a strong tradition for functional stoneware, the earliest history of which is unclear, though dated pieces exist from 1750. An abundance of excellent clays and wood supported an industry which met local needs, eventually expanding to serve most of France with a large variety of storage jars, jugs, pitchers and basins.

 Open-fired in Chinese-style kilns 30 feet long, 10 feet wide and high enough to stand in, the work was lightly saltglazed, the smooth clay registering considerable variety in color. Stacking these large kilns required a high degree of sophistication since as many as thirty kinds and sizes of work were involved, and no shelves or refractory furniture as such were used. Firings lasted four to five days, fueled by hundreds of faggots and debarked logs, all of which were furnished by a separate supporting industry, that of the woodcutters. By comparison to the aims of Japanese potters from the 16th century on, no attempt was made to exploit the firing process for its own sake; aesthetic considerations were incidental and given little heed. If anyone expounded on whether the potters were "artists" or "craftsmen," their speculations have been lost. What remains is some of the strongest indigenous work in clay ever made on the European continent.

 If North America has a "pottery state," it must be North Carolina, and if a single book can document its ceramic history, it is Charles G. Zug's Turners and Burners, The Folk Potters of North Carolina. This remarkable book has done much to heighten awareness among ceramists of the rich, if comparatively recent, continuing tradition of woodfired stoneware made in North America. It is important to note the word "continuing" since vast quantities of woodfired redware and salt-glazed ceramics were made throughout the northeast United States from the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, but only in the South has the tradition persisted while continuing to attract new practitioners. Woodfiring is nowhere better integrated into daily life and work than in the traditional potteries of North Carolina, especially in the Jugtown-Seagrove area, the U.S. equivalent to France's La Borne.

 Historically, the regional style of work produced in North Carolina was similar to that of La Borne in that it was primarily functional and originally made to meet the daily needs of people living within about 30-50 miles of potteries: dishes, jugs, bowls, plates, pitchers, mugs, birdhouses, candlesticks and planters were the customary items made while, occasionally, more unusual pieces such as gravemarkers were also produced. Clays were usually locallydug and processed by the potters, often with simple machinery such as mule-powered pugmills. Traditionally, woodfired groundhog-type kilns were used for both saltglazing and for making alkaline-glazed work, though the latter were most often employed in the Catawba Valley region and in the Edgefield, South Carolina area, where the technique flourished.

 While the updraft "beehive" kiln appears to have been preferred by potters in the Northeast, the so-called "groundhog" type of crossdraft kiln was favored by Southern potters, for firing both salt-glazed as well as alkaline-glazed pottery. Rectangular in shape, with a firebox at or somewhat below ground level, this type of kiln is further characterized by a low, wide arch and an equally wide chimney. There may be a relationship between the groundhog kiln and the treadle- type wheels in use by most of the traditional potters in the rural South inasmuch as the wares made on such wheels usually do not exceed the length of the potter's arm, and the height of the arch just clears that of the tallest pieces. The most difficult of kilns to load, the groundhog takes advantage of the long flames associated with burning wood, especially pine, and represents a fairly efficient design, if one can accept the sometimes considerable difference in temperature from the firebox zone to the area near the chimney. Its use is almost exclusively regional. The precise origin of the groundhog kiln has never been determined, but Zug attributes its predecessors to China, where the development of cross-draft kilns led to the first stonewares. Further refinement of such designs took place in Europe, where the Newcastle and Cassel-type kilns evolved, as documented by Rhodes and others.

 Alkaline glazes, as employed by southern United States potters, are composed primarily of wood ashes, clay, occasionally sand, and later, broken glass. This methodology poses an intriguing problem for scholars, because there is at present no direct connection between the unusual confluence of events that made technical information from China's Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.) accessible to potters in the lower South. Cinda Baldwin's Great and Noble Jar, Traditional Stoneware of South Carolina, examines the possibilities by which this information may have been transmitted, attributing it to the letters of Pere d'Entrecolles, published in England and France during the 1730s, detailing the methods of Chinese porcelain manufacture.

 According to Baldwin, William Cookworthy, a Quaker druggist and potter, had read d'Entrecolle's letters and became the first to make true porcelain in England, as well as introducing to that country the use of plant ash and lime as a flux for high-temperature glazes. In this country, Abner Landrum, an Edgefield physician, newspaper publisher, land speculator and founder of the Pottersville Stoneware Manufactory, appears to be the person most likely to have introduced such a glaze, perhaps as early as the 1770s.

 Ongoing curiosity about alkaline glazes led potters to experiment, adding finely-ground sand as a source of silica, and compounding glazes to compensate for the range of firing temperatures in the groundhog kilns. As glass became more available during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was broken and ground together with ashes and clay to form the basic glaze of such potters as the Meaders family in Mossy Creek, Georgia, and Burlon Craig of Vale, North Carolina.

 If anything characterizes the contemporary ceramics milieu, it is a dynamic eclecticism rivaling anarchy. It follows that history's role in the lives of contemporary ceramic artists and potters varies widely. Some persons demonstrate an almost glandular antipathy toward any work deemed lacking in "originality" and "personal expressiveness," while at the other extreme entire potteries slavishly dedicate themselves to "reproducing" earlier wares.

 Separating these extremes is the widest spectrum of work imaginable, exemplifying the diverse tastes of our era. In this context, contemporary woodfiring can be seen as an "emerging" genre with considerable potential, a rather recent frontier to be investigated. My own experience leads me to conclude that there is no typical woodfirer, as such. Some are participants in an ongoing pursuit to enlarge the boundaries of conventional tastes by offering alternatives to what they see as a certain bell-jar prissiness in ceramic expression. Perhaps just as many have no ideological axe to grind, preferring simply to pursue a line of work they genuinely love—a commitment offering levels of fulfillment with challenge, and an ongoing sense of self-discovery. As in any field, there are those whose careers are of such preoccupying significance that woodfiring is primarily a means toward that end. For some, ongoing curiosity about the process and its possibilities outweighs profit motives and interest in marketing, while still others depend on the sale of their work to support families. Few, if any, ceramists of the past could identify with the choices and dilemmas our age presents, and so the question, "What can we learn from the past?" suggests other questions, opening a dialogue.

 The appearance of Rhodes' and Cort's writings coincided with a willingness among ceramic artists and potters, in the U.S. especially, to enlist the firing process as a cohort, to move away from the trend toward chalky, lingerie-colored ceramic surfaces. The work of Paul Chaleff, Peter Callas and others questioned conventional norms: Must "beautiful roughness" always be an oxymoron when judging ceramics? Does excellence of execution necessarily correlate with white-knuckle control over every square centimeter of form and surface? Is it possible to make work inspired by the past without aping or mocking it? How might woodfiring enhance the values of pottery intended for daily use, such as that made by Linda Christianson or Malcolm Wright? How "Japanese" is woodfire work, and who determines such categories? To what degree must "significant" work transcend process? Is it possible to develop a fresh way of seeing and a critical vocabulary by which to measure the success of such work? How essential is it that the work be written about and read about? Can woodfiring's practitioners determine the genre's potential to enlarge the scope of appreciation for ceramics of aesthetic significance? And, perhaps above all, can woodfired ceramics be seen and appreciated simply for their capacity to uniquely enhance daily life, apart from any pedigree conferred by critical authority?

 Contemporary Japanese potter Shiro Tsujimura, when asked about the influence of historical work, replied:

Good pieces draw out the spiritual in me and stimulate me to work. I have no desire to copy historical works, but I would like to capture the same spirit I see in the best of them. Even if what I make has a completely different shape or color, it's that spiritual spark I want.